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About The Canterbury Tales:|
Geoffrey Chaucer wrote The Canterbury Tales, a collection of stories in a frame story, between 1387 and 1400. It is the story of a group of thirty people who travel as pilgrims to Canterbury (England). The pilgrims, who come from all layers of society, tell stories to each other to kill time while they travel to Canterbury. He never finished his enormous project and even the completed tales were not finally revised. Scholars are uncertain about the order of the tales. As the printing press had yet to be invented when Chaucer wrote his works, The Canterbury Tales has been passed down in several handwritten manuscripts.
About The Man of Law's Introduction, Prologue, Tale and Epilogue:
The Host reminds the pilgrims that time is moving on and asks the Man of Law to provide the next tale. The Man of Law confirms that he does not break agreements, but he excuses himself saying that he cannot compete with Chaucer. The Man of Law mentions some of Chaucer's actual works. "I speke in prose, and lat him [Chaucer] rymes make," the Man of Law says in line 96. The Man of Law proceeds to his prologue and tale, in verse, not in prose.
The Man of Law's Prologue is a short notice on the hateful state of poverty. Poverty makes a person beg for money, or steal money. Poor people have no friends. Rich people, merchants, are happy because they are rich. We may assume that the Man of Law's clients are mainly merchants, not poor people. After all, merchants enter into trade agreements that can have large financial interests and sometimes large financial conflicts that need supervision by a lawyer. Poor people have no financial interests.
The Man of Law's Tale is about Constance, the daughter of the emperor of Rome. She, a devoted Christian, is shipped by her father to Syria to marry the sultan, who has never seen her, but who is willing to convert to Christianity to overcome legal difficulties. Constance's opinion is of no relevance. She is merely a trade good, something that can be sold or exchanged. So she leaves her friends and everything behind and with sorrow mind goes to a pagan country. Constance takes nothing but her Christian faith with her. Meanwhile, the sultan's mother is not amused by her son's conversion to Christianity. Constance and her Christian servants and entourage and the Sultan and his entourage are invited to the sultanesse's house. The Christians and the Sultan are cut to pieces and only Contstance survives the bloody mess. After that, Constance is shipped again and pushed back into the sea to return to Italy, but the ship has no rudder. However, she is granted some food, cloths and other provisions. But wait, why was Constance not killed with all the other Christians in the house of the sultanesse? She was protected by her Christian faith of course (the members of her Christian entourage were apparently not devouted enough, so they deserved to die). Why did Constance not drown or starve drifting at sea in her rudderless ship? Well, her Christian faith protected her. Religion solves all problems, as long as you believe it.
After some time, Constance's ship crashes on the shores of Northumberland. Constance lies on the beach and is found by the warden of a nearby castle, who gives her shelter. Constance converts the pagan warden and his pagan wife to Christianity, despite the risk. Obviously, in this heathen land Christians had to stay under cover. Than a young knight tries to court Constance, but she refuses him. The knight takes revenge by killing the warden's wife and creates circumstances that it would appear that Constance has committed the murder. Constance pleads "not guilty", but how to prove her innocence? She asks to bring "a Britoun book, written with Evaungiles" (line 666, a book of gospels in English) and asks the false knight to swear with his hand on the book about his pretended innocence. The knight swears with his hand on the book that Constance is guilty of murder and at that very moment a hand appears and strikes him down. The false knight falls down, his eyes bursting out of his face. God hits liars. Everone knows that. The king, named Alla, and all witnesses are converted to Christianlty instantly. The false knight is executed and Alla decides to take Constance as his wife.
Just like the Syrian sultan, king Alla has a bad mother, named Donegild, who dislikes her son's choice. Constance gives birth to a boy. King Alla goes to Scotland for a war. He receives a false letter telling him that his son is wicked. He returns a letter that he loves his son anyway, but this letter is also replaced by a forged one that orders to ban Constance and her child from the country. So Constance and her child are put in the same ship in which she came to the shores of king Alla's country.
King Alla returns to his country, finds out about the conspiracy of his mother (who had replaced genuine letters by forged letters) and has his mother executed for banishing his wife and child. Meanwhile Constance is drifting at sea again with her child and her Christian faith that protects her. When a bad man climbs on her ship and tries to rape her, Virgin Mary helps Constance (line 920) and the rapist falls overboard and drowns.
Constance's father, the emperor of Rome, had heard about the slaughter at the house of the sultaness and sends an army to punish the Syrians. When sufficient heathens are burnt and killed, the Roman army sails home and finds Constance's vessel on the open sea. She is rescued and brought to Rome where she gets shelter from the commander of the punitive army. No one has recognised Constance and she had not revealed her identity, although she is perfectly safe in Rome now. Why does she not reveal the fact that she is the daughter of the emperor? The story does not tell. She stays with the commander and his wife for a long time, not revealing her identity. Apparently king Alla regrets that he had his mother executed and goes to Rome to receive penance and ask for Christ's forgiveness. King Alla unknowingly sees his own son. His son's face does ring a bell and he asks to see the mother of the child. Constance is brought before him and the spouses recognise each other. Constance of course remembers his unkindness and the fact that she was banished from his country. After a short explanation and fact-checking all misunderstandings are swept away, Constance and Alla kiss a hundred times and are happily united.
Well, only one thing has to be done, which is the revelation of Constance's identity. The emperor invites king Alla and his wife Constance for dinner. Upon seeing her father, she reveals her identity and everybody is happy. Later, Constance's child becomes the emperor of Rome, which is not further elaborated. Constance and Alla go to England. One year after their reunion, king Alla dies. Constance is a widow now and she returns to Rome. End of story.
What to think about the morality of The Man of Law's Tale? Christian religion is pervasively present in The Man of Law's Tale. Constance drifts at sea for a long time. Her faith is her vessel protecting her from evil. Despite her sufferings, Constance remains faithful and even converts the hosts that give her shelter. At the end, her Christian faith is her protection and her reward. Meanwhile Constance is a trade good and marriages are trade goods. Women were frequently exchanged to maintain or restore peace between rivaling families, clans or countries. Constance has no choice and no opinion and does not reflect on what happens to her. She is just a paragon of a good medieval woman. She is virtuous, a faithfull Christian, has no opinion and does not really resist to being traded or married.
About the order of the tales:
Note that at this point the uncertainty about the order of the tales. It seems clearly that The Shipman's Tale follows directly after The Man of Law's Tale. However, what comes next in most editions of The Canterbury Tales is The Wife of Bath's Tale. It does not really matter. Both The Shipman's Tale and The Wife of Bath's Tale stand on itself. The reader may choose for himself which tale to read next.
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